Sorry: Dolphins Aren’t Smiling

A dolphin's "smile" is actually an illusion. So is our belief that these animals can heal.

dolphin underwater
Vincent J. Musi/National Geographic Creative
JAY, AN EIGHT-YEAR-OLD boy with autism whose behavior has always been agitated and uncooperative, is smiling and splashing in a pool. A pair of bottlenose dolphins float next to him, supporting him in the water. Jay’s parents stand nearby as a staff member in the water engages Jay in games with colorful shapes. She asks him some questions, and the boy begins to respond. He names the shapes correctly, speaking his first words in months. Jay appears more aware and alert, and a quick, noninvasive scan shows that there have indeed been changes in his brain activity.

Jay’s parents are elated to have finally found a treatment that works for their son. They sign up for more sessions and can’t wait to get home and tell their friends about their experience. They’re not surprised to find that dolphins have succeeded where mainstream physicians have not. Everyone believes that dolphins are special—altruistic, extra gentle with children, good-natured. And the trainers have assured the parents that the dolphins are happy and accustomed to the role they’re playing. After all, as everyone can see, the dolphins are smiling.

Jay is a composite character drawn from the dozens of testimonials that appear on dolphin-assisted therapy (DAT) websites, but stories like his—about the extraordinary powers of dolphins—have been told since ancient times. Much of our attraction to these creatures derives from their appealing combination of intelligence and communication skills. However, their “smile,” which is not a smile at all but an anatomical illusion arising from the configuration of their jaws, makes people believe—wrongly—that the animals are always content.

Not only are the dolphins living in captivity unhappy, but there’s also no compelling evidence that they can heal. What does exist is a great deal of evidence that they are being harmed—along with the humans who believe in them.

Fuel for the Myth
The long-standing mythic belief in dolphins as healers has been passed down from the first written records of encounters with these animals. In Greco-Roman times, dolphins were closely linked with the gods. In Greek mythology, it’s said that Taras, son of Poseidon, was rescued from a shipwreck by a dolphin sent by his father. The perception of dolphins as lifesavers is connected with beliefs that they possess magical powers that can be used for healing. The ancient Celts attributed special abilities to dolphins, as did the Norse. Throughout time, people from Brazil to the Solomon Islands have traded dolphin body parts for medicinal and totemic purposes.

The person most responsible for advancing modern notions of dolphins as healers is the late neuroscientist John C. Lilly, who pioneered research with captive specimens in the 1960s. His early work on their brains and behavior was groundbreaking. In a paper published in Science in 1961, Lilly reported on the range of vocal exchanges between two dolphins in adjacent tanks and noted how their conversation followed polite rules. For example, when one spoke, the other was quiet. Lilly drew up a lexicon, showing that dolphins used a variety of communication methods, from blowing and whistling to clicking. But it was his informal studies of the mammals interacting with children with autism that led him to make statements about the animals’ powers, which became the basis for many of the claims made by DAT facilities.

Flipper Isn’t Real
Marine mammals were first captured for public display in the United States by circus mogul P. T. Barnum in the 1860s. Yet the popularity of dolphin shows, in which trainers engage them in daring gymnastics, grew dramatically in the 1960s and ’70s. In 1964, the TV series Flipper was first broadcast. Flipper was a bottlenose dolphin who lived in a cove and helped his two young human pals save people in trouble. But if Flipper increased public interest in dolphins, it also led to concerns over the animals’ welfare. So marine parks rebranded themselves as centers of conservation and learning—by emphasizing their breeding programs and efforts to educate people about marine animals—rather than as sites for entertainment.

Regardless, the public’s fascination with dolphins continues. In the United States alone, millions of people visit captive-dolphin facilities every year. Swimming with dolphins (SWD) programs have emerged as a lucrative component of the dolphin entertainment industry. Although some operations outside the United States offer opportunities to swim with wild dolphins, the large majority of SWD customers swim with captive dolphins in tanks or pools.

Many people describe their in-water encounter with a dolphin as one of the most exhilarating, transformative encounters of their lives. “This dolphin experience is life-changing. Never again … will I [have] a day like this,” writes Matt W. about his swim at the Dolphinaris park in Cancún, Mexico. Others report a sense of euphoria and intimate kinship with the animals. In many ways, it was only a matter of time before the concept of dolphin-assisted therapy emerged as an enhanced version of SWD programs, underpinned by theories of healing derived from dolphin mythology.

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